Author, poet and civil rights activist Dr. Maya Angelou died Wednesday at the age of 86. As one of the literary world’s most influential figures, Angelou’s legacy has been enriched by a life replete with terrible struggles overcome by amazing triumphs.
Angelou was born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Mo. Her older brother gave her the nickname Maya, which stuck with her throughout her life. When her parents split up, Maya and her brother were sent to live in Arkansas with a grandparent.
When reunited in St. Loius with their mother, Angelou was assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend when she was just eight years old. The man was charged but only jailed for a day, and was later found dead. This series of events traumatized Angelou but also led to her creative awakening.
The siblings were sent back to Arkansas, which like much of the Deep South, embraced Jim Crow laws. Still, Angelou was introduced there to the literature and theater that became the hallmarks of her career. After moving to California to live with her mother again, Angelou won a dance scholarship to San Francisco’s California Labor School.
She dropped out of the program, however, instead making history by becoming the first African-American female to operate one of San Francisco’s cable cars. She returned to high school, graduated and then gave birth to her only child, Guy Johnson. After a series of odd jobs, Angelou eventually found her footing as a dancer alongside Alvin Ailey. Their stage act never took off, but she continued in the field.
In 1951, she married Tosh Angelos, working in the Bay Area as a calypso act after their 1954 divorce. During this time, she took on the stage name Maya Angelou. Angelou discovered civil rights activism in the late 1950s, after moving to New York and joining the Harlem Writers Guild.
In 1960, a meeting with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired her to support the Southern Leadership Christian Conference (SCLC). In 1961, she acted onstage in a production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks with James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson, among others. That same year, she met South African activist Vusumzi Make and moved with her son and Make to Egypt.